Childhood in the war
500 days of fear, shelling, and endless hope
The war in Ukraine has been lasting for 500 days. Five hundred days of fear, danger and a fight for life. Throughout this period, Ukrainian children have been left without homes, school, healthcare, and even drinking water. Shelters became their playrooms, benches in the metro stations replaced their beds, and instead of school bells, they have become accustomed to hearing air alarms. This is how hostilities deprive Ukrainian children of their childhood.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) insists that children should not live in an atmosphere of constant fear and anxiety. The war must end so that every child can have the peaceful and happy childhood they deserve.
A homeless childhood
The war in Ukraine that started on February 24 has led to a devastating humanitarian crisis, forcing massive migration throughout Ukraine and abroad. Almost two-thirds of children in Ukraine have been forced to leave their homes.
Yuliia is a mother of two, and she is one of those parents who were forced to flee Kharkiv, while being accompanied by sounds of explosions. The family decided to go to Germany and spent almost a week on the road. During the journey, Yulia, her 1-year-old daughter, and 9-year-old son slept on the floor of an industrial building, on a small bed in a kindergarten, on a wooden bench, and in the car: “but it’s still better than under fire,” Yuliia says.
Nobody dreams of being a refugee. Neither had Yuliia, but she had been dreaming of her own apartment and of travelling with her children to the sea. The war crushed their plans. They only want the war to be over, so that they would be able to come back to Ukraine.
“I decided to leave my home and our entire life with only one goal: to save my children. And to survive!” says the mother of two.
84-year-old Valentyn has three grandchildren. Like Yuliia, he spent a couple of restless days trying to rescue his family. The retired man travelled more than 1,200 kilometers in an old car to bring his son, daughter-in-law, three grandchildren, and a red cocker spaniel from the front line to the West of Ukraine.
The family was bent on taking this desperate road after over a month of hiding from bombardments in a basement in Zaporizhzhia. They were living without any electricity, network connection and on just a small amount of food. As soon as the food supplies were depleted, the family decided to flee. The man recalls the most horrifying days for his family:
“Seeing the hungry eyes of your children is worse than death”
Valentyn’s childhood was spent on the remainders of debris and rubble, a legacy of World War II, and he doesn’t want his grandchildren to have the same fate. “I used to play with bullets when I was a kid, and I don’t want my grandchildren to have the same childhood,” says the grandfather, holding his granddaughter in his arms.
A childhood without school and education
UNICEF warns that the war has threatened education and thus the future of children in Ukraine. Around 5.3 million of them face barriers to education, including around 3.6 million directly affected by school closures. In addition, 2 out of 3 refugee children from Ukraine remain excluded from the national education systems of their host countries.
As a result, children in Ukraine are at risk of losing critical years of education and social development. According to the Ministry of Education and Science, more than 2,600 schools have been damaged and more than 400 destroyed since the beginning of the full-scale war.
Little Vika was in her first year of school in Avdiivka when the full-scale war started.
“I loved to study in my school. But the war deprived it of me,” the girl says.
She is only 8 years old, but she has already experienced war conditions twice: first when she was born in the middle of hostilities in the East of Ukraine and then again while packing her schoolbag with explosions in the background. She lost her home, and she has no opportunity to study.
Younger children have also lost access to education as a result of the war. On February 24, 2022, preschool education institutions in Ukraine closed. Some of them resumed their work only in the fall, but the rest haven’t been reopened yet. 7-year-old Myroslava speaks of her dream to visit her first graduation, which was shattered by the war:
“This is the dress that I wanted to wear to my kindergarten graduation. But it didn’t happen, because the war started”
A childhood spent in shelters
Families with children were forced to seek shelter because of continuous artillery attacks and air bombardments. They were hiding in basements, metro stations, underground parking. Cold and dark premises unsuitable for living have become home to many Ukrainian children. For over a year now, they have been living underground, sometimes without access to hot meals, medicine, or education. Many of them started dreaming about just seeing sunlight.
After the outbreak of the war on February 24, the metro in Kharkiv has been serving as a shelter for thousands of people who were fleeing shelling and bombing outside. 10-year-old Sonya and her mom are among them. After the start of the war, they were living in the metro carriages for a couple of months.
“Today, my mom and I went home to take a shower and take some stuff. It was terrifying.”
Danylo was only 4 years old when the full-scale war started in Mariupol. The boy, his brother, and his parents spent a month in a basement hiding from countless bombardments, having no electricity, water, or hope for rescue.
“There were other children, but I still felt bad in there. Everything there was stony and ugly. We had a bed on the floor and stones. We had almost no food, nothing. My mom would share a small piece of cheese with me”
Danylo recalls his life in the basement, recalling that his parents used to heat his food with candles. Fortunately, the family managed to escape from destroyed Mariupol. But the boy is still afraid of the dark and loud noises.
Childhood under shelling
The war in Ukraine deprives Ukrainian children of the most precious part of their lives — it takes away their family members. For already 500 days, children in Ukraine have been under enemy fire. And some of them have witnessed the worst — their relatives’ deaths.
“I took a photo of my mother at the Kramatorsk railway station, and this picture became the last photo of her life,” reflects 13-year-old Katia.
Along with her sister, mother, and aunt, the girl was under the shelling of the Kramatorsk railway station.
That day, the family was going to move to Vinnytsia because it was too dangerous to stay at their home. But her mother died under the shelling having not left the town. “These days, I am attending a psychologist and other doctors, who help me recover and get through all the awful things that have happened. It is still emotionally extremely difficult for me,” the girl admits.
16-year-old Mykyta has survived a deadly shelling of Bakhmut. “A piece of shrapnel stopped a millimeter from my heart,” 16-year-old Mykyta is using his fingers to show the actual size of the metal shrapnel, which was removed from his chest by medics. About 3 centimeters of iron could take his life.
But having survived the shelling in Bakhmut, he has lost his relatives and native home.
“When you lose your loved one or have your house destroyed, you feel such a pain inside that you cannot find a word to describe it,” Mykyta wipes his tears away.
The doctors say he will recover from the shelling. But his mental injuries are much more devastating than the physical ones.
Childhood surrounded by mines
Since the beginning of the full-scale war, Ukrainian children have faced the danger of mines and other unexploded ordnance. Child casualties usually occur when children pick up explosive devices such as hand grenades and fuses, thinking they are toys. 8-year-old Vladyslav from Lyman is one of such children.
He found a bullet near a burnt-out tank abandoned at a railroad crossing in Lyman and picked it up.
“The explosion was massive. I started to bleed and couldn’t feel my arm. In the hospital, doctors tried to remove the shrapnel, but they didn’t succeed. It is still inside”
The boy touches the scar located above his right shoulder blade. Recently, he can freely move his arm, and he feels no pain anymore. But the fear of unexploded ordnance is still gnawing at him.
After more than 9 years of hostilities in East Ukraine and a year since the beginning of the full-scale war on February 24th, Ukraine is one of the countries most affected by mines. About 30% of the country’s territory is potentially contaminated with unexploded ordnance and mines. Mines and other explosive remnants of the war cause the deaths and injuries of many children in Ukraine. Furthermore, many Ukrainian children have to live with different physiological disabilities for the rest of their lives.
UNICEF continues to respond to the urgent humanitarian needs of children and ensure access to medical care, immunization, nutrition, education, water, and sanitation and contributes to the provision of psychosocial and mental health support. In refugee-hosting countries, UNICEF continues to work with governments, municipalities and local partners to strengthen national systems that support refugee children with quality education, health services and protection.
In Ukraine, UNICEF has expanded its efforts to support the government in inclusive, child-centered, and sustainable recovery by strengthening child protection, education, and health. Thanks to UNICEF programs, more than 1.8 million children have access to formal and non-formal education, including early learning; more than 3.4 million children and their caregivers have access to psychological and psychosocial support; more than 5.5 million people have access to clean drinking water; 6,790,642 children and women receive primary health care in UNICEF-supported facilities and through UNICEF mobile teams.